While the Pittsburgh return game has made some big plays in recent years, the coverage units have been mediocre at best and poor at most. The kick-return coverage was rated 66th nationally, while the punt-return group was 91st. So, more attention certainly couldn't hurt.
"I'm going to be the guy who heads that up, but two assistants will be assigned to each phase, too,'' Dave Wannstedt said. "And I'll be in charge of the whole thing. I just felt like after we hired some new coaches on offense and defense that there would be a little transition on both sides of the ball, but I didn't want that to happen with our special teams.
"And other than defense, special teams is an area where I spent a lot of time in meetings and everything else. And to tell you the truth, I feel about our special teams the way I felt about our defense a year ago. We're closing the gap and getting real close to how I envisioned us being.''
If special teams plays out the same way as Pitt's defense, the units will be highly ranked soon. That might be a lot to ask, but improvement is necessary.
"We're going to do whatever we can to get the job done,'' Wannstedt added.
The Panthers also must get its offensive line settled as quickly as possible as well during training camp. It's a group that was much-maligned last fall and shackled by injuries in the spring, as prospective starters Jason Pinkston (shoulder) and C.J. Davis (hamstring) and possible strong contributor Chris Jacobson (knee) were all out after surgery. And three starters from the previous season graduated, so the unit got an overhaul.
Redshirt freshman Jordan Gibbs manned one tackle spot, while converted guard Joe Thomas was at the other. Junior-college transfer Robb Houser moved into the center spot, and junior John Malecki was moved from defensive tackle to offensive guard. Backup John Bachman was at the other guard spot. Pinkston should replace Gibbs, while Davis will take over for Bachman this fall.
"Malecki, every day you can see that he's getting better,'' Wannstedt said. "I think he's found a home on the offensive line, so I'm very pleased with his progress. Joe Thomas, for not playing tackle before, only a little bit in high school, I was pleased with how Joe played in the spring.
"So, the offensive line, that's one position where we have a lot of potential, but we have to figure out who the best guys are and who gives us the best chance to win. Then, we have to pull that group together as quickly as we can for the start of the season. So, we have a lot of potential there, a lot of guys to choose from, but we've also got a lot of guys who haven't done anything yet.''
That's why Wannstedt chose Tony Wise, who also is a close friend, to work with this group. It's a big challenge, but Wannstedt believed the veteran line coach was more than up to the task.
Injuries also hit the tight end position hard, as junior Nate Byham and redshirt junior John Pelusi both missed spring drills. Gus Mustakas, a starting defensive tackle in 2006 and a couple games last fall before a serious knee injury, also missed the spring. Tailback Kevin Collier (hand) and wideout Derek Kinder (knee) steadily improved in the spring and were ahead of the rest.
"The tight ends are doing everything right now, running and lifting, everything,'' Wannstedt said. "Nate and Pelusi are both cleared. Jason Pinkston has been cleared, and so are Derek Kinder and Kevin Collier. Lumpy (Jacobson) has been cleared, too. He's doing everything right now, and so is C.J. Davis.
"But Gus probably is the one guy who is behind a little bit. He's not where he needs to be, yet, but he'll get there. I do not anticipate any problems, but it just takes time. He had a serious knee injury, but he's working hard. And I don't anticipate anybody, really, to not be ready once we put the pads on in camp.''
When Pitt gets to that point, Wannstedt and his staff will need to have just 85 players on scholarship. To get to that number, some former walk-ons might not have theirs renewed. Wannstedt also confirmed that linebacker Dan Loheyde, who suffered a serious knee injury his first practice at Pitt during camp in 2006, has hurt the same knee and will not be able to play for the Panthers.
"Dan Loheyde has been placed on medical,'' Wannstedt said. "He's had two knee surgeries since he got here, on the same knee, and one was pretty bad. He just never recovered from that. So, unfortunately, he needed to go on medical. We also have some guys who have pending academic issues, but we'll know more on that in the next couple weeks.
"Every situation is different, but (former walk-on Austin) Ransom definitely is on scholarship this year,'' Wannstedt said. "A couple other guys like (Frank) Kochin, (Michael) Toerper and (Brian) Kaiser, they're on a year-to-year basis, so it depends on how things shake out from now until the fall.''
The status of fullback Shane Brooks and cornerback Sherod Murdock, reportedly having academic and legal difficulties, respectively, were not discussed. However, neither is likely to be on the team this fall and could transfer. Another, sophomore wideout Mo Williams, will be redshirted to work out his academic issues.
"The guy never played receiver before,'' Wannstedt said. "He was a quarterback or safety his whole career, but we moved him to wideout. If Derek Kinder doesn't get hurt, we would have redshirted Mo, and he would have had time to learn how to play receiver. But we didn't have that luxury.
"We didn't have Aundre Wright and Aaron Smith (due to redshirts), as well as Kinder, so Mo had to play some. And he did all right in limited playing time. Unfortunately, he didn't do what he needed to do academically, and this is the result. I give these freshmen the benefit of the doubt, but they have to prove to me that they want to be part of this program.
"So, he's got his work cut out for him, but he's capable of doing it,'' Wannstedt added. "Some are better than others at doing it, and for Mo it will give him a chance to learn more about playing receiver on the scout team and work on his grades. And that's the most important thing.''
Fortunately for the Panthers, there is some depth at wide receiver, especially with Kinder returning and freshman recruits Jonathan Baldwin, Mike Shanahan and Cam Saddler coming in for the fall. Baldwin should pick up the slack in Williams' absence, while Shanahan could redshirt. Saddler should at least be a contributor in the return game if not as a wideout. Second-year players Aaron Smith and Aundre Wright redshirted as freshmen last fall.
Dave Wannstedt Interview Part II
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